By Suma Varughese July 2008 We’ve suffered the scarcity of the socialist years and surfeited on the excesses of the consumerist age. perhaps it is time to draw a balance, and arrive at the ethical and intelligent approach of thrift, which can save the environment, safeguard our highest ideals, and knit us closer into community kinship “And so we can say that the industrial economy’s most-marketed commodity is satisfaction, and that this commodity, which is repeatedly promised, bought, and paid for, is never delivered. On the other hand, people who have much satisfaction do not need many commodities.” – Wendell Berry in The Whole Horse in The Art of the Commonplace A long time ago, when I worked in the mainstream media editing a lifestyle magazine, I used to have an office car. Since I didn’t know how to drive, I got myself a driver and every time I went out anywhere, I used to think what a bulky unit the car, the driver and I formed. I was always worried about finding parking for the car, and my conscience smote because while I enjoyed myself at some society do or the other, my driver was killing time somewhere.Soon after, I left mainstream altogether and joined up with Life Positive. The car went back to the company. My reaction was one of pure relief. I felt amazingly light travelling on my own by train or by walk, footloose and fancy free. And there were innumerable perks to the situation. I did not have to worry about polluting the environment, and plus, I was not alienated from the aam junta. I was not only privy to the misery rife in suburban railway stations, but was also part of the vibrant train culture with its bonhomie and quick friendships. I also saved a packet in terms of the driver’s salary. In other words, win, win, win win.When a situation seems to generate advantages in so many areas of our life, when all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fit in, then we can be sure that our compass is showing due north, that we are moving in the right direction. We are encountering a first principle, and if we follow it, a path will open up for us that will lead us home. Because life is meant to be holistic, conflict-free, effortlessly right and utterly simple.The simple life has been one such path for me. I have been travelling long on it, and have a very long way still to go, but the path has integrated my values with my life, and has enabled me to live in harmony with my highest goals and the larger good. I am now ready to move into a higher state still and that is thrifty living. The main difference that I see between simple living and thrifty living is in the details. Simple living dictates the lifestyle, but thrift dictates the life. Having decided to stay with essentials and live simply, thrift helps us to maximise our resources, and make the most of them. Thrift adds a spin to simplicity and makes it fun.Says Suchitra Tiwari (name changed), a 50-plus home-maker who elevates thrift to a high art, “Thrift is such a creative way to live. It gives me great satisfaction to make something worthwhile out of what would be confined to waste.” Suchitra converts spare wood into amazing knickknacks that include a mural, planters, and wastepaper baskets. Broken mugs are reassembled with colourful M-seal, and converted into toothbrush holders. Old doorposts are converted into avant-garde frames for paintings and wall hangings. An unused airconditioning window is deftly converted into a showpiece. Wedding, Diwali and brithday cards are carefully freed of their decorative elements which are reused as gift tags. Embroidered motifs on worn-out clothing are rescued and given several new avatars. “If they are in good condition, I may use them for another outfit; if they are slightly worn-out I might put them on a cushion which does not require to be washed so much, and if they are really in poor shape, then I might frame them as a showpiece.” Suchitra’s supple, agile mind supplies endless possibilities, and ensures ongoing transformation of all her resources. She also points out one more advantage to her many thrift projects. She gives employment to artisans and craftsmen, “which I love doing.” Businesswoman Latha Tanna (name changed), is equally passionate about thrift, particularly when it comes to food. A creative and enterprising cook, Latha can make masterpieces out of leftovers. She says, “When my brother came to visit from the US he was bowled over by a malai methi vegetable I made from left-over scrambled vegetables. It’s interesting to explore and make something with a different texture and colour from an earlier dish.”In Latha’s house nothing is wasted. Leftover bajra rotis are converted into a tasty dahi dish. Left-over chutney is washed out and added to the next vegetable curry. Vessels containing fried food are carefully rubbed out with flour, which is then used to make chappatis. “You not only reuse the oil, but you clean the vessel too, which means you use less soap to wash it,” she says knowledgeably. She adds, “The fundamental motivation is to honour and respect everything you have.”Thrift consciousnessThe ability to be thrifty is a high state of mind for it denotes a deep ability to care. It is only when we can respect and care for our resources that we will be inspired to put them to creative use and reuse. Thrift also comes from superb self-control, the ability to draw limits for one’s desires and needs, and a deep ability to focus, for only then do the possibilities arrive in consciousness. And it calls for a dynamic active nature that will enable one to overcome inertia and attempt proactive solutions. Thrift also bespeaks a flexible mind that can look beyond the manifestation of one form to the unmanifest potential contained within it. Little wonder then that thrift is nature’s signature tune. We simply need to study nature to recognise how wise and ethical a concept thrift is. Nature uses everything to create something else. Everything dies and degenerates into soil which is the creative tabula rasa for the magnificent symphony of life. Man lives on plant and animal food and is himself fodder for worms when he dies. Water is condensed and drawn up as vapour which then converts itself to rain and comes back to impregnate the earth with new life. Plants and trees bear fruit and die and out of the fruit fresh plants and trees grow. An eternal and sustaining cycle plays itself out in every natural phenomenon. What a sharp contrast to this prudent and thrifty model is our present blowsy and overblown way of life. Extravagance, excess and waste characterise a culture fuelled by consumerism and capitalism. Urban India is on a feeding frenzy for more cars, foreign holidays, branded goods, gourmet food, designer clothes and footwear, even as we throw out earlier models like spoilt children. At one level this is understandable. For too long we have stood like starving children with our noses pressed against the glass pane of Western affluence. We needed to know what it was like on the other side. Now we do. And we need to ask ourselves if we are substantially happier, healthier, more peaceful and more harmonious as a people than we were before? If we are not, then it is time to travel some more. Our journey is not over. At the same time, the party is more or less getting over everywhere. A food crisis is threatening a world complacent with excesses. And in India, inflation, fuelled by soaring oil prices, is making life more and more difficult for the common man.Perhaps if we do not consciously shift to thrift today, we may be forced to tomorrow. One has no intention whatsoever to be alarmist, but life is obdurate in making us learn lessons, and learning to say enough is one lesson that we have long lingered over. Thrift is the wayPerhaps the fundamental reason to leave behind consumerism/capitalism is that it simply cannot hold together. It is riven by massive contradictions that sooner or later will consume us. In the first place there is the reality that our resource base – planet earth – is finite. How on earth are we supposed to fulfil our endless desires on such a base? It cannot be sustained. President Bush recently observed that India and China were becoming more prosperous which was good because it meant that the US had more markets for their goods but which also meant that we were eating more (thereby fuelling the food crisis, he meant). The fact is that you cannot have one without the other. If you want booming markets you must also expect to have shortages in everything as people step up their demands.And it’s hopeless to imagine that the solution to this problem lies in finding another planet in which to forage on. The question that it does not solve is this – is a locust culture really good for us? Must we keep stripping planet after planet in order to assuage our insatiable appetite? Or can we simply cultivate self-control? It is now increasingly difficult to ignore the cost of consumerism on the environment. Mahatma Gandhi, that apostle of thrifty living, said it well, “The earth has enough for all our needs but not enough for even one man’s greed.” With practically the whole world turning voracious, is it any wonder that the planet is on its knees, gasping for life? It is important to recognise that we live in an ethical universe, and there are consequences to unethical living. Our present wasteful way of life is based on two specious economic theories imported from the US. One is the use-and-throw philosophy based on the premise that in order to keep demand high one must have inbuilt obsolescence. In other words, one strives for shoddiness, not excellence. Today, we dispose of everything from tissues to pens, clothes to computers, fridges to cars. Fuelled by a technologically fast-paced industry, things
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